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UCL Student wins NASA competition

The 2014 International Space Apps challenge

Amish Ralhan, a second year student in the Department, and his group won the first prize at the 2014 International Space Apps challenge conducted by NASA. The project named Android Base Station proposed by Amish’s team won the global prize for the ‘Best use of Hardware’. The device was created at Space Apps London to transform a smart phone into a wifi hotspot by connecting to satellites using a 3-D printed robotic arm. This automated, ultra-portable, satellite tracking station can log changes in micro-satellites in orbit.

The International Space Apps Challenge was a two-day hackathon where teams of technologists, scientists, designers, artists, educators, entrepreneurs, developers and students across the globe collaborated and engaged with publicly available data to design innovative solutions for global challenges. The competition took place at 95 locations around the world where more than 8,000 participants developed software, hardware, data visualizations, and mobile or web applications for the challenge that contributes to space exploration missions and help improve life on Earth.

The opportunity: Purpose of the project

The cost of satellite bandwidth varies a lot depending on the connection. The easiest, but the most expensive and slowest is geo-stationary. These far out satellites that need only a fixed dish, are expensive to put into Space and have a lot of demand. The next satellites orbiting around the equator require a dish with one motor to track their orbit, they are cost effective and in high demand. The satellites used for communication are polar orbit. These are satellites that pass over the Poles and give Antarctic researchers bandwidth. As the Earth is turning at 90º to their orbit, its tracking requires a dish that can track in any direction. They are under-utilized and low cost source of bandwidth providers in the inhabited latitudes.

The Solution:

A user puts the satellite tracking device down and turns it on. The Android phone orientates itself using its digital compass, GPS and gyroscope. A list of satellites is then consulted to find the cheapest bandwidth available. The dish is pointed at the satellite and the signal is used for a final calibration of how levelled the phone is. Now the phone connects to the satellite, becoming a wifi hotspot. If there are cheaper connections appears over the horizon, the connection will be switched.

This project was created in three main parts: server side database of usable satellites, Android phone application that uses a copy of the database to find a target and a pocket sized robotic arm to automate tracking with any small satellite modem antenna. Amish was responsible for building the robotic arm and program the microcontroller to control the arm.